When the Societe Anonyme opened in 1920, its founders intended it to be an organization in which all sorts of artists — especially lesser-known ones — could present modernist art without the need for approval from critics and art historians. Today, the art from the society’s extensive collection is receiving the very recognition it initially rejected.
“The Societe Anonyme: Modernism for America,” a traveling exhibition organized by the Yale University Art Gallery, was recently awarded second place in the category of thematic museum show by the U.S. Art Critics Association. Organized by Jennifer Gross, the gallery’s curator of modern and contemporary art, with the assistance of Susan Fisher, the associate curator of modern and contemporary art, the exhibition features over 200 works by a number of modernist artists, some as legendary as Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray. Gallery administrators said the critically acclaimed show — now halfway through its national tour — will probably be extended to two international venues, crossing the Atlantic in a trip that only one other exhibition in the history of the gallery has made.
Gross and Fisher received the award with Jock Reynolds, the art gallery director, at a ceremony in New York on Wednesday. Yale’s exhibition, presented at Los Angeles’ Hammer Museum, took second honors behind another show organized by the National Gallery of Art, the Centre Pompidou and The Museum of Modern Art.
“We’re getting second place, but we’re like the little David to the Goliath of MoMA, the Pompidou and the National Gallery, so it’s just fine,” Gross said. “For us, it’s brought us into this national dialogue, which is nice.”
Gross said it is unlikely that, after this tour, many of these works will ever travel away from Yale again, due to their fragility and importance to Yale’s collections. She said this was an ideal time for the show, since parts of the museum have already and will continue to be closed for renovations over the next few years.
The show began its tour last April at the Hammer and then traveled to the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. The collection will next be seen at the Dallas Museum of Art and then at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts in Nashville, Tenn. Because of the show’s success, the collection will likely make a transatlantic detour to Europe before returning to New Haven, Gross said, as multiple European museums have expressed interest in showing the exhibition despite the huge price tag of insuring a show that far away.
Gallery administrators said the Societe Anonyme collection, which has never been shown in Europe, will ideally travel to two museums abroad.
“We’re trying to see if it can go possibly both to Sweden and Holland,” Reynolds said.
Founded in New York in 1920 by the artists Katherine Dreyer, Duchamp and Man Ray, the Societe Anonyme was an organization of modernists devoted to supporting and exhibiting each other’s work and educating the wider public about modern art. When the group disbanded in the 1940s and ’50s, all of its collections were given to Yale, and the society’s archives were left to the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.
Gallery archivist Elise Kenney said the significance of the art in the Societe Anonyme collection has long been ignored. The gallery did not put on a large-scale exhibition when it first acquired the art, she said.
“It was an art that was received by a public that just wasn’t ready for it,” Kenney said. “It was a world that was not interested in that kind of non-objective art … What’s really great about it is it was collected at a time when no one was really interested in it.”
Art history professor David Joselit said he considers Yale’s Societe Anonyme collection of some 1,000 objects to constitute the most important modern holdings in any university museum. The Societe was unique in its time, he said, because it brought to light the work of so many nontraditional artists.
“It’s a very fresh and different perspective and one that doesn’t follow the kind of canonical lines that were laid down by the Museum of Modern Art,” Joselit said.
Museum officials at the first two venues visited by the exhibit praised the show’s success. Claire Rifelj, a curatorial assistant at the Hammer, said the exhibition broke records for attendance at the museum.
The Societe Anonyme show also provoked a great deal of scholarly discussion, said Beth Turner, a senior curator at the Phillips collection.
“That’s the sign of a great exhibition, when the sparks start to fly,” Turner said. “Great exhibits don’t answer everyone’s questions, they raise them, they make people start to think.”
Although some Yalies are disappointed by the collection’s long absence from New Haven, administrators said the publicity associated with the exhibition will bring much-needed scholarly attention to the art.
“It’s a shame that the material’s not here, but the fact is that even if it were here in New Haven, it would not be as accessible in the space,” Joselit said. “Even though it would be great if it were here, I think it’s much more exciting and will benefit the collection in the long run.”
Current students may even benefit from the absence of some of the collection’s most prominent works, said Kristin Swan, a managing editor at the Yale Center for British Art Publications, who began working on the exhibition during her second year of graduate study.
“It gives current students a chance to see works that would otherwise be in storage right now, and I think that’s a really exciting opportunity,” Swan said. “Just having the publicity associated with the exhibition I expect will drive students to tap into those resources.”